Day In Court : Real-Life Claims Court Draws Line at Rowdy, TV-Style Confrontations

Times Staff Writer

He was having his day in court. Not that he really wanted to--he was standing at the lectern to the judge's right . . . the defendant's "box." He was being sued by a testy plaintiff, a loan officer for a credit union who demanded payment of $254.69.

The plaintiff had the edge. The defendant, sensing his downfall, protested that the payment had been made--at a 24-hour teller window. It wasn't his fault, he said, that the credit union took hours, sometimes days, to record the deposit. It also wasn't his fault, he said, that the payment should have been made at the branch where the loan exists. If it's all the same bank, he argued, what difference does it make what branch is used.

Well, it doesn't work that way, the plaintiff said. The judge, who appeared to be buying the plaintiff's argument, suddenly heard shouting. The defendant had reached the breaking point.

"That isn't as it should be!" he screamed.

"Well, that's just how it is!" the plaintiff said.

"Gentlemen," the judge shouted, having the final say, "this is not 'People's Court!' "

"The People's Court" is a television show (seen locally on Channel 10). It offers a real-life courtroom setting, even a real-life judge, Joseph A. Wapner. In the view of at least one judge in San Diego County, though, the realness ends there.

Misconceptions on Conduct

"The negative side of the program," said Municipal Court Judge William Mudd, "is that it leaves the public with the impression that certain kinds of conduct are acceptable in a real-life courtroom --specifically, confrontations. With judges, litigants, whomever. I'm talking about shouting, name-calling, that kind of thing."

The court Mudd refers to is small claims. Until 1985, Mudd had spent several years as a small claims court commissioner. Small claims is one court in which the judges are "commissioners"--they also referee traffic cases--and litigants represent themselves without attorneys. Mudd and others warn, however, that small claims court is not "play" court, as some seem to believe it is. (More fallout, he fears, from "The People's Court.")

Small claims is "real" court. Its primary difference from Municipal and Superior courts is the dollar amount--a $1,500 limit on contested matters. Higher amounts (in civil cases) are taken up in Municipal and Superior courts.

TV on Everyone's Mind

A recent day in San Diego Small Claims Court (located with traffic court in Kearny Mesa) showed that a certain TV show is weighing on the minds of everyone involved--litigants, commissioners, bailiffs.

Especially the last two.

Several times when emotion flared in the courtroom of Commissioner James L. Duchnick, he having presided over the credit union case (verdict: plaintiff), "The People's Court" was used as a model of how not to behave.

Bailiff Hector Olmeda stole much of Duchnick's --and litigants'--thunder by saying in pretrial instructions that "The People's Court" was a popular television show, nothing more. A friendly but firm warning.

That Olmeda even uses the show as a bad example is just another example of the hold television has on society.

"Judge Mudd used to say, 'I don't want to hear that so-and-so slammed the door in your face, drinks like a slob or called your wife a dirty name,' " Olmeda said. "Leave that emotional stuff at home, he said. He let 'em know right down the middle, and it usually got the job done."

But some judges--even Mudd--say the show is not all bad.

"It does two good things," he said. "It teaches individuals to be brief and to the point. It also teaches them you must be prepared. They've got to have everything when they come to court. A lot of people have no concept of what's required of them, they leave written estimates of a car accident behind on the kitchen table. A lot of times I'd be in a position to do something for them, I often believed the things they were saying, but they just didn't have the proof."

Litigants Poorly Prepared

However, on a recent day in small claims court, the most striking facet was how poorly prepared most litigants were.

A tenant, making what appeared to be a good case against an erstwhile landlord, failed to bring her original lease agreement--the document the landlord remembered. Verdict: landlord.

In another case, plaintiff and defendant engaged in a nasty contract squabble but both failed to bring written copies of the contract. Duchnick postponed the matter, angrily telling both parties to get their act together.

Even so, Stu Billett, executive producer of "The People's Court," a syndicated show based in Los Angeles, feels that "preparation" is one of the main ways the show helps.

"It used to be incredible," he said. "People used to walk in with information written on matchbook covers. Now they know better. You really do learn a lot about what to do, what not to do.

"As far as being emotional, most of our mail indicates just the opposite--people feel Judge Wapner is too stern, too taut. They don't feel they get away with enough.

"Hey, whether it's the '80s or whatever, people are angry. They want that day in court. Maybe they need to vent their spleen. I will admit we pick people who express more--maybe they do seem madder. As a television show, we naturally pick people who articulate--who emote. We can't afford to use people who are meek, quiet, shy--but sure, you'll find those kind in 'real' court. Maybe the contrast makes it seem as though our folks are more hacked off."

While he would prefer the shy complainants to those who are hacked off, Commissioner Duchnick agrees that certain aspects of the show are helpful. A look-alike to comedian Buck Henry and an avid triathlete, Duchnick credits the show with making his job a bit easier.

"As matter of fact," he said, "on the whole it's helpful. They know a judge is there, they expect to have rules, they aren't just flailing away. We give them careful instructions before each calendar, in case they're tempted to parrot the show. We really don't need that."

Part of why they don't need it is that the number of contested cases--as opposed to defaults where one party fails to show, or those settled beforehand--rose sharply in 1984. Contested cases now make up 20 to 25 of the 60 or so scheduled for hearing by each commissioner each day.

Paradoxically, and this baffles the commissioners, the total number of cases fell in 1984. Some 2,500 now enter the dockets each month.

Mudd is at a loss to explain the drop, but thinks, once again, "The People's Court" may be in session on several fronts.

Bitter Claims Made

"Although the numbers declined," he said, "the amount of acrimony seemed to be increasing. December, in fact, was the worst month I've ever seen for acrimony, bitterness, vindictiveness, people bringing lawsuits that would make your hair curl."

Neighborhood disputes, Mudd said, were--and almost always are --the worst.

One case concerned a tree sprouting onto a neighbor's property. The offended party pruned the tree, not only the portion encroaching upon his land but most of the rest of it as well. The tree's owner sued. The case lingered for months like a bad sore, both parties treating each other like bitter enemies. The defendant later produced Polaroid photographs showing the actual damage as minimal. And Mudd was bone-weary near the end of it.

Part of what may be happening with the drop in total cases and increase in contested cases is, Duchnick said, a television-inspired "change in attitude." Plaintiffs are seizing the urge to "go all the way" with cases, a la "The People's Court," but they also are realizing that one party will lose (another of the show's contributions).

Litigants also may have gleaned a certain slyness from the telegenic court. The defendant who owed money to the credit union, and who was asked by Duchnick to please huddle with the plaintiff and work things out, admitted watching the show but bobbed and weaved when the question of influence came up.

"I've watched it for years," he said testily, "but how could I, a mature adult, possibly be influenced by that? You heard the man. When I got emotional there at the end, he made reference to it. But you heard him, didn't you? . . . he wouldn't let me be influenced by it."

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